Sport’s history spans across thousands of years and spreads across every part of the globe, from Scottish Highlands’ trademark shinty to Persia’s good ole jousting. Therefore it would be very hard to trace the firsts and originals. But sport as we know it was instituted formally in (where else? These guys…) Ancient Greece. Back in 700’s BCE, the beta version of the Olympic games was held at Olympia on the Peloponnese peninsula, hence the name. The Greeks always had a thing for sports, obviously, but somehow, football was overlooked. In return, football overlooked the Greeks. In fact, due to their basketball tradition, quality and obsession, football was in danger of becoming extinct, based on the proven fact (by me) that a country is either totally into football or basketball. Just look at Lithuania, for God’s sake. Those two can’t coexist, and I’m not talking about the Neville brothers.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night in a pond of sweat, nervous as if you were Watford manager, with your heart beating as hard as the Peugeot’s 2-litre turbocharged 4-cylinder engine from ‘96, wondering how the hell did Greece win the Euros back in 2004? Neither do I, but in my humble opinion, that feat, accomplished by the greatest German general ever according to Greeks, probably saved Greek football. Of course, club football had and always will have its loyal audience in that beautiful land of 2000 islands down south, but the game never achieved nationwide recognition and popularity, until then.
The country itself is probably most famous for its history and polytheist mythology, which honour all those marvellous marbly things were built back in the days. You all heard of Athena, goddess of reason and war, or Poseidon, ruler of the seas and earthquakes, and of course the unavoidable Zeus, the big man. But there was another Greek deity. A God so mighty that could unite all those shirt color-divided kids simply by switching the ball from his lethal left to his righteous right. You heard for elf on the shelf. It’s time for Vasilis Hatzipanagis.
From zero to hero
As I was waiting for my kebab inside a family-owned shop in the almost freezing town of Kastoria, located in as-north-as-it-gets Greece, my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to get to know the locals’ view of the game, and the clubs they support, as long as we avoid the World Cup. There’s too much of it around anyway.
I tried to talk football with bartenders, shopkeepers and all sorts of bypassers ever since arriving in Greece three days earlier, but every single one of them discarded my question. “No my friend, no. Basket yes, football no.” – they all muttered as I tried to remember how many players are even fielded in that beautiful game between the hoops. As the guy serving my kebab approached, he said something in Greek, and I responded with a thankful “Charisteas”, as it was the only Greek word that I knew besides Panathinaikos, hoping he would save my starving soul with something, anything related to football. Little did I know he is actually friends with the man himself.
Angelos Charisteas, the now retired striker whose decisive header brought delirium to millions of Greeks and a question mark above the rest of the world’s heads back in 2004. He even showed me pictures of the two of them drinking beer on the very table next to mine. I felt sudden relief, accompanied by a bit of excitement. The conqueror of Portugal sat and ate here, talking to the guy I’m talking to at the moment. They are actually friends. We dug deep into football, as my girlfriend disinterestedly enjoyed her food. I understand her, though. The boys are talking.
This could be the best kebab ever.
The conversation unfolded, and he surely made up for all the rest of the “DE-FENCE!” orientated Greeks I had met before. When asked about his favourite Greek player (expecting he would say Charisteas) the former lower-division footballer, now hilarious kebab-master Antonis intrigued me with these two words: Greek Maradona.
The Kebab was tackled easily, but Hatzipanagis’ road was indeed a rocky one. Born in the mountainous lands of Uzbekistan, then so-called satellite state of the fearsome USSR, a son of a Greek political immigrant, Vasilis had better things to do with his feet than to walk across the numerous cotton fields, as many of his fellow citizens did in the city of Tashkent.
Football was his first love and the local side FC Pakhtakor understood that very early, so little Vasilis took up the ball. Years passed, and as it usually happens with an exceptional talent, he made his official debut for the first team at the age of seventeen. The creative attacking midfielder was ready even before, as they say, but for obvious reasons, couldn’t get hold of a Soviet passport earlier. In his second season, the young talisman led the team to promotion, dragging them up the ladder to the Soviet Supreme League.
His talent now had a wider audience, and the show in the Uzbekistan theatre couldn’t fit all those interested. A few seasons in the top flight brought him a national cap, which he desired so much, not because of his love for the USSR, but as an entry to another, bigger stage to show his magic. He produced immediately, scoring against Yugoslavia on his debut in the Olympic Games qualifiers in 1975. The USSR had a new kid to count on. But not for long.
During his time at FC Pakhtakor, he made 96 appearances, sliding the ball past the keeper 22 times. Even though his ability was finally recognised by the country, and his place in the first Soviet team awaited, being a sub to one of the Soviet’s greatest forwards, the famous Oleg Blokhin, was not enough for a 21-year old. Young Vasilis didn’t feel right in that place.
His discontent with USSR was growing stronger and stronger. There was something that lured him down south, from his childhood days that his father spoke about. The smell of salt and olives in the air, the mountains that touch the deep-blue sea… An unfinished sympathy.
All we are saying is give Greece a chance
Ever since the end of WW2, constant internal tensions were tearing Greece apart. The USA and Britain didn’t want Greece to become another communist haven, so they put their effort into it. USA decided they would not sit and wait, so the CIA was deeply involved in the anti-communist propaganda, having their hands in forming the notorious “IDEA” group, funnily consisting mostly of domestic combat veterans that fought on the German side during the world’s direst times.
The Greek communist party was banned by the authorities in 1950, and under the new rule, many people found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks and had to flee the country, or risk the questionable consequences, which might be the reason why Hatzipanagis senior appeared in the middle of the USSR. We will never know, but we will always assume. Those people from the “IDEA” group eventually rose to the highest positions, from which they controlled the state.
So, after some time, Greece finally got rid of the far-right-general-led authorities and became a democratic republic in 1974. This was the sign young Vasilis was waiting for. He heard the call. He had enough of the cold USSR and desperately wanted to soak his feet in the Aegean sea. His dream came to life in December of 1975, when he signed for Greek’s first league side, Iraklis Thessaloniki.
We have all heard (I hope) of the Athens trio, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos and AEK. There are also PAOK and Aris of the Thessaloniki, who combine the top 5 of Greek football. But it wasn’t always like that. Iraklis, who are now just an average second division team, are another Thessaloniki club, and were a name to be counted on back in the seventies. The club bears the name in honour of the Greek demigod Heracles, hence the Greek version of the name Iraklis. Just like him, they fought giants, and although they never achieved the same highs as the mythical hero. Instead, they found their own, real one, with flesh, blood and style which is capable only of godlike humans.
A crowd of nearly 3000 gathered that late December night to welcome their new hero in the seaside city of Thessaloniki. It is hard to predict how young Vasilis Hatzipanagis felt in that moment visiting his fatherland for the first time with that kind of reception, but I’m sure it was out of this world. Their romance began before it even started.
The 21-year old star shined as bright as ever. He also earned his first cap for the Greek squad in a friendly against Poland shortly, which unfortunately proved to be his last as well. After he drove the Poles and the whole of the Athens crowd crazy with his miniatures, his Soviet history came to haunt him. He was informed that he was ineligible to play for Greece because he had already represented USSR in official matches. This was an injury Vasilis Hatzipanagis would never recover from.
Since he signed a 10-year contract with Iraklis, leaving his destiny in the club’s hands, his show was now limited to a Greek audience, but he didn’t seem to care much then. He knew what he was doing, but in those times it wasn’t as unusual as now. For example, in neighbouring Yugoslavia, players were not allowed to leave the country before they turn 28. Those were the days, I say!
In his first season back home, they won the Greek cup in 1976. Iraklis had hit the jackpot. The crowd instantly fell in love with this wild, long-haired dribbling addict, whose main purpose was to make defenders look stupid. He once said in an interview:
“When I see a defender, I just want to dribble him out. It’s simple as that.”
He didn’t particularly enjoy training, which is somehow expected and accepted for that sort of genius. His style was flamboyant and fast, precise in a tenth of a second. He had eyes on the back of his head, and knew perfectly when and where to pass, which earned him respect from both practical and emotional sets of fans. A few years later, when he was in his prime, a huge interest surged for this surrealistic painter who held his brush in his feet, as Arsenal, Stuttgart and Lazio were very keen on opening up yet another workshop for him to showcase his skills.
However, due to his importance to the club, Iraklis refused to even consider it. He definitely needed bigger stakes. One trophy was certainly not enough for a player of his pedigree. Hatzipanagis was crushed, but accepted his fate. Every home game was nearly packed, and in every city, they played to a crowd that had gathered in vast numbers, just to see this beautiful bird flying around. I wonder what would happen if they had ever let him out of the cage.
Fox in the telephone box
In his 15-year spell with Iraklis, he made 281 apps and added 62 goals to his tally, and is considered by many to be Greece’s greatest ever player. He retired in the club’s last European match to this day, against Valencia in 1990, without even tasting the green, green grass for the last time. With his retirement, the downfall of the club that kept this world class talent for themselves commenced. Coincidence? I don’t think so, but if you believe in karma…
Hatzipanagis said that he personally feels that he didn’t make the most of his football. As a great player, he surely deserved better than being confined to the Greek league, with all respect to it. But how could I be sure all of this was true?
I was being convinced by Antonis the kebab master, that once in a league match, Hatzipanagis dribbled past five players and a keeper himself, reached the goal line and then refused to score, putting the ball out of the game, looking angrily at the opponents. He reportedly said after that match:
“I came here today to play football. If this is how they play, they are not worth playing at all.”
Now that’s what I call fair play.
It is said that he was so strong on the ball that he dared his teammates and the rest of the mortals to take the ball away from him, in a telephone box. No one could.
I mean, come on! This sounds ridiculous, but a kebab master in the northern town of Kastoria, a farmer in central Greece’s city of Agrinio, a fisherman in the capital’s southernmost neighbourhood Piraeus, a bum in the middle of nowhere and a mechanic in the capital’s northernmost neighbourhood Acharnes all confirmed this alien’s skills. None of them supports Iraklis, by the way. But could it be? Is that just another Greek myth, a mere legend passed on from one generation to another? I doubt it.